Notes on the climate crisis: Heathrow expansion

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In June last year, sensing the growing chaos of Theresa May’s administration, the Heathrow lobby got the government to smuggle legislation through parliament to expand Heathrow airport. It only passed because many Labour MPs voted for a third runway, against their party’s policy on aviation. They undoubtedly received encouragement in their defiance by the actions of Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, who wrote to every Labour MP lobbying for Heathrow expansion.

Fast forward 11 months and the same parliament votes to declare a climate emergency. On the same day the High Court in London throws out a case brought by the Mayor of London and an assortment of London boroughs against the government’s climate policy on aviation. The challenge was based on commitments the government had signed up to in the Paris climate agreement. According to the judges, the Paris agreement “has no basis in English law”.

What had happened in the intervening months was, of course, the mass climate movement led by school students and groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR). Nevertheless, such events reveal the stark difference between words and actions, and the massive battles ahead for the climate justice movement.

Last month Heathrow airport held a public consultation on its “master plan” for expansion. The plans will entail massive environmental disruption, the re-routing of the M25 motorway and a river, the destruction of a major wetland nature reserve, and parking for over 25,000 cars.

And in the same month XR cancelled its planned actions involving drones at Heathrow. The plans for peak holiday disruption came under intense pressure both within and outside the organisation once they were revealed. One needs to only recall the state’s paranoid response to drone activity last year to realise that such action would have led to far more drastic action by the state against the group. Yet the need for a mass open campaign against Heathrow expansion is more important than ever.

The Heathrow lobby has been beaten before and it can be beaten again. A mass campaign from 2007 put the it on the defensive. The campaign involved the local community and direct action groups such as Climate Camp, which organised a large protest camp next to the airport.

But in 2009, during the dying days of the last Labour administration, Gordon Brown declared in favour of expansion.

The rebranded Tories under David Cameron came to power in 2010 promising no new runways in the South East.

The aviation lobby does not give up so easily. They put pressure on Cameron to reverse his policy. This he did by commissioning the Davis report, which came out in favour of aviation expansion.

Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of emissions in the world, yet it seems immune to the requirement to reduce carbon emissions. At current rates it could comprise over 50 percent of UK emissions by 2050.

And it is the only transport sector that does not pay VAT on fuel. Yes, there is no VAT on jet fuel. It is the billions the aviation industry receives in direct and indirect subsidies that has allowed this unconstrained growth.

The demand for aviation growth is being driven by a small minority: 75 percent of all flights in the UK are taken by just 15 percent of air travellers. As the UK’s leading climate scientist, Kevin Anderson, put it, if the richest 10 percent in Europe were to simply reduce their emissions to EU average it would result in a 33 percent reduction in emissions.

Heathrow expansion is not a battle the UK climate justice movement can afford to lose. An airport is a major piece of fossil fuel infrastructure, because there is no low carbon alternative to jet fuel.

If the power of the aviation lobby is to be broken once and for all it will require unions like Unite to end their consent to the hegemony of fossil capitalism.

An expanded Heathrow would lock the UK into decades of high carbon emissions. It would make a declaration of climate emergency meaningless. And expansion of Heathrow Airport would give the green light to airport expansion everywhere.